Performance photos by Michael Yip
No longer confined to boxing rings, training camps, and youtube videos, Muay Thai is now gracing the theater in what is touted on billboards around Bangkok as its "thrilling new stage spectacular!" In an hour-long show composed of five acts, the creative team behind Muay Thai Live: The Legend Lives makes claims of attempting to show that Muay Thai is not just a sport, but an intricate art form with soul, closely tied to the history and heritage of the Thai people.
Nestled in Asiatique, one of Bangkok's many shopping districts too refined for my plebeian tastes, the theater is surprisingly crowded on the Wednesday night we attend. Our group of eight international bloggers, sent by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to cover Muay Thai culture in Bangkok for a week, is seated in a "VIP" row amid a sea of Thai middle school students. "You'll be interviewing the director afterwards," our tour organizer tells us, "so think of some questions to ask while you're watching the show."
The audience is first transported 300 years back to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (the ruins of which are just a short afternoon bus-ride away from modern-day Bangkok), where we witness a temple fair and meet a mysterious stranger who is really good at kickboxing. The first minute into the first scene, it's completely apparent that everyone in this show is a phenomenal athlete. The actors come from various backgrounds—some are former Muay Thai fighters or other high-level martial artists, some are stuntmen, others are trained as dancers or gymnasts. Auditions were held nationwide, followed by nearly six months of full-time training.
The creative team's vision also includes the element of audience participation, which is in full swing just a few minutes into the first scene: a performer is knocked off stage and lands inches away from the front row, causing the school children seated there to jump up in their seats and scream in peril.
More screaming is heard from half the female bloggers in our group when a tall, muscled actor steps onto the stage. The ladies continue to provide a soundtrack of cheers every time a new shirtless man emerges onstage. Certainly this can be considered part of audience participation as well.
As the show progresses, the temple fair turns into a prison scene, and later a battlefield. The actors wage war with each other, swords break in two, and limbs are used as weapons "sharper than knives," according to the multi-language subtitles on the digital screen. A female warrior fights alongside her warlord husband, then is hurt by some people… It gets kind of confusing. The stunning visuals, however, are enough to distract me from the fact that I have only the vaguest sense of what's going on, plot-wise. (After the show, one of our tour organizers, a local Thai woman from Bangkok, will explain to us who all the characters were, acknowledging that she found it easy to follow the show because she's versed in Thai history.)
The fourth act features my favorite part of the show so far (aside from watching the kids in the first row freak out earlier when the falling actor nearly crushed them). Now we've arrived at the demonstrations of what the program calls "the most sacred techniques of the Ancient art of Muay Thai." Each technique is demonstrated full-speed by the actors, followed by a slow-motion breakdown on the digital screen, complete with the technique's name, such as "Giant twirls the earth," "Demon steals the maiden," "Elephant smashes the shelter," and my personal favorite, "Carp conceals behind the base."
It's rare to see Boran techniques performed anywhere other than in specialty schools or choreographed exhibitions. Preserving and showcasing these techniques, though, is part of the point of the Muay Thai Live production. According to the director's later interview, Muay Thai Live provides an opportunity to show a bigger range of what Muay Thai is, "more than what you can show in a boxing ring. We have techniques in this show that are banned in the ring because they're too destructive."
In the final act, the audience is transported back to the modern day as a young man proposes to his annoyed girlfriend. She's inexplicably kidnapped by thugs, appearing next on an elevated platform, wrists bound, in what would now be the "Deserted Warehouse" stage if this were Street Fighter. Our modern-day Muay Thai hero singlehandedly takes down all the nasty men out to ruin his wedding plans, thereby proving that Muay Thai is still useful and relevant in our contemporary times.
As the hero takes his bride-to-be in his arms, she asks him what is more important: their relationship or his Muay Thai obsession? With a pleading smile, he says, "You and Muay Thai are both the loves of my life! Can't I have both?" She concedes, perhaps convinced of Muay Thai's value now that it's saved her life.
The love story seems like a silly add-on, but the director's reason for writing love stories into this show is to helps justify the fighting. The director later tells us he's not comfortable with violence, so the main characters are portrayed as fighting nobly for their families, loved ones, or liberty. This particular director, Ekachai Uekrongtham, has previously worked on other Muay Thai-related projects in both film and theater, and I find it interesting that this production's depiction of Muay Thai rests in the hands of someone inherently opposed to violence.
Toward the end, majestic text appears on the screen behind the actors during the Muay Thai Boran scene:
Muay Thai changes and evolves as it spreads across the globe.
Three things remain the essence of Muay Thai:
One - Respect for ancestors and teachers.
Two - Sacrifice for families and loved ones.
Three - Upholding the honor of our country.
The actors take their bows and the audience cheers for having witnessed an hour of thrilling fight choreography and creative falls. I never knew falling after being kicked in the head could be so acrobatic and beautiful. These people can actually do everything you ever imagined being able to do when you played Mortal Kombat and Tekken in the arcade. I'd even say they're Cirque du Soleil-level, which is pretty much the highest accolade I can think of for a performer.
The lights come on and I leave the theater full of even more love for something I already love. YEAH MUAY THAI! Thailand is the best! I can't wait to go back to the gym! I shall marry my champion fighter-boyfriend and be the broodmare for a Muay Thai family dynasty!
There's not much time to fantasize about a future with Muay Thai as our handlers shuttle us off immediately to a press room to meet the director, Ekachai Uekrongtham. I'm the only blogger supremely honored and excited to meet this director because I'm the only person in this group who has seen and loved his film Beautiful Boxer, the award-winning biopic of transgendered Thai fighter Nong Toom. I cry every time I watch it. This movie is so good that even the trailer alone makes me cry.
Director Uekrongtham sits facing the half-circle of bloggers and their digital cameras. When we ask about his connection to Muay Thai, he tells us that he's never been a fighter, but on a personal level, as a Thai, he's fascinated by it. "It's a strong part of Thai identity and spiritual essence," he says. "We're trying to distill the essence of Muay Thai in this show, give a fuller picture of Muay Thai on our stage than what's allowed in the ring. But it's a show; we still need to entertain everyone.
"Sometimes people get really excited about Muay Thai after seeing this show. They come up to us afterwards and say they want to start training. We hear a lot of women and children saying this, which I think is great. We might even start a camp right here!"
He moves onto the next subject before he can elaborate on the structure of a potential camp: whether the cast would train students in addition to performing, or if the same teachers who train the cast would train the regular students as well, or if the gym would be unrelated to the show except by name or location. It seems likely, though, that a gym affiliated with this show would be geared toward preserving Muay Thai as a cultural art, rather than the traditional angle of raising fighters to earn money in the ring.
"We're hoping to attract an international audience," Director Uekrongtham continues. "As you saw, we have subtitles in English, Japanese, and Chinese. We'd like to tour Asia and maybe Europe next year. So far, we have a pretty international audience—all kinds of people can enjoy this show because it doesn't require much language to understand."
"You should do subtitles in Russian!" interjects Katya, our outspoken Russian blogger. "I can help with translation. Russians love shows, you know?"
"Right," the director politely agrees. "We were thinking of bringing in a ballerina, maybe a Russian ballerina, for a special program this Christmas. Like a Muay Thai ballet."
Alexandra, the tall, flirtatious blogger from Slovakia, asks if anyone in the cast is from a different country.
"No," the director says, "the whole cast is Thai."
"Is the whole cast single?" she fires back.
After the interview, we are herded out into the lobby and told we must pose for photos with the cast. Our handlers remind us that the photos will be posted on the Tourism Authority's website, "so make sure to smile."
In between posing for photos, I turn to one of the lead actors of Muay Thai Live, Asanee Suwan, a Thai boxer who previously worked with Director Uekrongtham as the star of the film Beautiful Boxer. A couple of the other actors look on curiously while I start a conversation with him in nervous Thai, mangling my way through telling him how great he is and how his performance in Beautiful Boxer makes me cry every time. Ever the gentleman, Suwan kindly tolerates my silly display with grace.
Meanwhile, Alexandra is wrangling up the performers she'd been eyeing during the show for some group photos. "I need pictures with these guys! It's for my #SexySaturday posts on Facebook!" She takes her place between a group of shirtless men and grins widely. "I post a new photo every week!" she tells the actor on her right. "Look it up, Sexy Saturday! Next week, it'll be you!"
Good to know that Muay Thai Live has such a universal appeal.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.